A brief introduction to Aquinas:
The Italian Dominican Thomas Aquinas is without question one of the West’s most important philosophers and theologians. Along with the likes of Augustine, no one can afford to be unaware of this vitally important Christian thinker. Although he did not live to be 50, he penned over 60 important works.
A brief timeline can be mentioned here:
1225 Born in Aquino
1230 Begins studies at a Benedictine monastery
1239 Begins studies at the University of Naples
1244 Becomes a Dominican
1245-48 Studies in Paris
1248 Sent to Cologne
1250 Ordained a priest while there
1251 Lectures in theology in Paris
1256 Takes up chair of Master in Theology
1261 Teaches in Orvieto
1265 Sent to Rome; completes his Summa contra Gentiles
1265 (or 1266) Begins work on his Summa Theologiae
1268 Returns to Paris
1272 Moves to Naples
1273 Summa Theologiae completed
He is of course noted for his famous “Five Ways” of arguing for God’s existence, and his massive works such as Summa Theologiae and Summa contra Gentiles, and numerous biblical commentaries. Such a major thinker was he, and so prodigious, that one can only attempt the barest of outlines here concerning the man and his work.
Indeed, this figure looms so large in the history of Western thought, that it might be best just to run with some summary statements about him from some of his many recent students. While I make no claim to any expertise here, the authors I feature are reliable guides and authorities.
Peter Kreeft is a leading contemporary student and populariser of Aquinas. Kreeft has said that Aquinas “is certainly one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived (to my mind he is the greatest)” and he goes on to offer eight reasons for this. Here is one of those reasons:
3. St. Thomas was a master of metaphysics and technical terminology; yet he was also such a practical man that as he lay dying he was talking about three things: a commentary on The Song of Songs, a treatise on aqueducts, and a dish of herring. Ordinary people, Popes, and kings wrote to him for advice and always got back sound wisdom. I know of no one since St. Paul who is so full of both theoretical and practical wisdom. (p. 12)
Timothy Renick offers this summary of his thought:
Thomas Aquinas ranks among the three or four most influential thinkers in the history of not merely Christianity but of Western thought in general. Aquinas’s theory of natural law shaped our modern concept of human rights. His views of the state supplied the model for the argument of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. His commentaries on sex are still hugely influential. His views on the justice of warfare and the status on noncombatants have been codified into international law and can be found in U.S. military handbooks. Seven hundred years after his death, his proofs of God’s existence are still among the most discussed by philosophers. And the compromise he worked out between faith and reason—his answer to the question, “How can I be a religious person and still accept the claims of science”—is the answer adopted by most modern Christians to this day. (pp.1-2)
One major student of Aquinas, J. Budziszewski, said this in his 1997 volume on natural law, Written on the Heart:
Thomas Aquinas, a thirteenth-century Dominican monk and Christian saint, is generally regarded as the greatest of all medieval philosophers and one of the greatest philosophers of all time. His output was prodigious. My edition of the Summa Theologica, the work from which his Treatise on Law is taken, runs to about three thousand pages, and the Summa is itself only a small part of his life’s work. Yet Thomas can get more onto a page than most writers get into ten. Summa, by the way, means “summary.” Written for beginners, the Summa was an attempt to summarize all that could be known about God, about man and about their relationship. (p. 53)
Or as he put it elsewhere:
By consent of learned opinion, St. Thomas of Aquino, “the Angelic Doctor,” is one of the greatest philosophers and theologians of all time. A good many of those who know his work would say that the qualifying phrase “one of” gives him too little credit. Every cranny of reality is illuminated by his reflections, and his address is universal. Persuaded that Sacred Scripture and Apostolic Tradition are true and reasonable, he writes as a Christian, yet not a few atheists consult his writings assiduously; his works are too penetrating for anyone safely to ignore. For all these reasons, what we call Thomism is not just a dusty episode in the history of ideas, or a set of formulae written down in a book, but a living, unfolding tradition that continues to develop. As he challenges his critics, so he invites challenge in turn, asking for correction at any point where he turns out to be in error. (2014, 2016, xix)
Brian Davies (2017) said this: “Aquinas wrote more than eight million words, and his readers have been legion. He is the most significant theologian and philosopher of the Middle Ages, and he is still widely studied.” (p. 98)
The noted Protestant apologist Norman Geisler begins his volume on Aquinas by noting various Reformed and evangelical critics, then says it is time for believers
to join in a positive word of gratitude for the masterful expression and defense of the historic Christian faith bequeathed to us by this humble giant of the faith. As for myself, I gladly confess that the highest compliment that could be paid to me as a Christian philosopher, apologist, and theologian is to call me “Thomistic.” This, of course, does not mean I accept everything Aquinas wrote naively and uncritically. It does mean that I believe he was one of the greatest systematic minds the Christian church has ever had, and that I can see a lot farther standing on his shoulders than by attacking him in the back. No, I do not agree with everything he ever wrote. On the other hand, neither do I agree with everything I ever wrote. But seven hundred years from now no one will even recognize my name, while Aquinas’s works will still be used with great profit. (p. 14)
Finally, Edward Feser offers us this glimpse of the man himself:
In addition to his profound humility, the character traits for which Aquinas was most notable included a deep piety and an astounding capacity for sustained abstract thought. It is said of him that he was so single-minded in his devotion to God that he would leave the room when discussion turned away to some unrelated subject. He could become so absorbed in prayer or in a chain of philosophical or theological reasoning that he would sometimes forget where he was, fail to perceive the people around him, and even (as one account has it) fail to notice the flame from a candle he was holding as it burned his hand. According to another famous story, while at dinner with King Louis IX of France he got thinking about the Manichaean heresy, struck the table exclaiming “That settles the Manichees!” and called for his secretary to take down the argument that had just occurred to him. Suddenly realizing where he was, Aquinas apologized and explained to the other startled guests that he thought he was alone in his room. Related to this tendency towards abstraction appears to have been an extraordinary unflappability. Anscombe and Geach relate a story according to which Aquinas once came upon “a holy nun who used to be levitated in ecstasy.” His reaction was to comment on how very large her feet were. “This made her come out of her ecstasy in indignation at his rudeness, whereupon he gently advised her to seek greater humility.” (pp. 6-7)
For further reading
There are many books one could list here, but these 18 volumes would be a good place to begin. Most are penned by Catholics, but not all. Oliphint for example offers both praise and criticism of Aquinas from a Reformed perspective.
Budziszewski, J., Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Divine Law. Cambridge University Press, 2021.
Budziszewski, J., Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Happiness and Ultimate Purpose. Cambridge University Press, 2020, 2021.
Budziszewski, J., Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Law. Cambridge University Press, 2014, 2016.
Budziszewski, J., Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Virtue Ethics. Cambridge University Press, 2017, 2018.
Chesterton, G. K., St. Thomas Aquinas. Image Books, 1933, 1956.
Copleston, Frederick, Aquinas. Penguin, 1955, 1961.
Davies, Brian, Thomas Aquinas: A Very Brief History. SPCK, 2017.
Davies, Brian, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas. Clarendon Press, 1992.
Feser, Edward, Aquinas. Oneworld, 2009, 2020.
Geisler, Norman, Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Appraisal. Baker, 1991.
Kenny, Anthony, Aquinas. OUP, 1980.
Kerr, Fergus, Thomas Aquinas: A Very Short Introduction. OUP, 2009.
Kreeft, Peter, Practical Theology: Spiritual Directions from Saint Thomas Aquinas. Ignatius, 2014.
Kreeft, Peter, ed., Summa of the Summa. Ignatius, 1990.
Oliphint, K. Scott, Thomas Aquinas. P&R, 2017.
Renick, Timothy, Aquinas for Armchair Theologians. Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.
Selman, Francis, Aquinas 101: A Basic Introduction to the Thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Christian Classics, 2005, 2007.
Stump, Eleanor, Aquinas. Routledge, 2003.
As to where to begin, obviously those wanting full-scale detailed studies should run with Budziszewski and Kreeft. For much briefer introductory volumes, perhaps try Davies (2017), Kerr, Renick or Selman.